Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Where's the attribution?

I WAS beginning to think I was the only person troubled by the unquestioning reportage of the assumed assassination of Osama Bin Laden and four of his supporters, wives or bodyguards.
Thank goodness for the Independent, for whom at least two correspondents were willing to doubt the version of events being put out by US President Barack Obama and his acolytes.
The cry of American journalism used to be “attribution, attribution, attribution.” Reporters were taught to take care that they made it clear when they were communicating someone else’s version of events, unless they had witnessed them directly.
Sometimes this was taken to ridiculous extremes, as in “President Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas today, according to police” when the event had been seen by millions on television.
But at least that mind-set would have prevented the outrageous gullibility of the media in the wake of the Bin Laden incident. Here are some of the statements made by the media in Britain, particularly the BBC, with the required attribution in italics.
Osama Bin Laden was shot dead today, according to US President Barack Obama. None of the news agencies witnessed the shootings, nor can they be sure the dead man is Bin Laden.
There was a fire fight when Bin Laden refused to surrender, according to American sources. Again no impartial members of the media saw what happened and shouldn’t have reported the official line as fact. He could have been shot in the head, or in the back, or both.
Bin Laden’s body was buried at sea to prevent his grave becoming a shrine, alleged the White House. Even if the dead man was Bin Laden, how do we know he was buried at sea, and even if he was, how do we know the motive was to prevent his grave becoming a shrine? We don’t. Bin Laden, or his double’s body, could be laying on a slab in an American laboratory for all the media knows.
Even the supposed DNA testing of the deceased was just too glibly accepted as evidence by the media.
Geoffrey Robertson QC in The Independent points out that Justice, the word used by Obama to describe the death, used to mean arrest, trial and sentence after due process. Yet no other correspondent I saw, with one notable exception, questioned the wisdom of the President’s use of words. Robertson also argued cogently why it would have been wiser to capture Bin Laden alive and put him before a tribunal.
The other exception was The Independent’s peerless correspondent Robert Fisk who, in a brilliant personalised news report, bemoaned the triumphal references to resounding victories. He also pointed out that if the dead man from Abbottabad turn out not to have been Bin Laden, Obama will lose the next US election.
His shame will be no greater than that of the media who so slavishly reported events they couldn’t possibly verify as facts.
These events unfolded just days after similar unquestioning coverage of the bombing of a so-called command centre in Tripoli, that turned out to be a mansion in which President Gaddafi’s youngest son and grand-children were killed.
There is unlikely to be any independent analysis of those cold-blooded killings now they have been overtaken by the Bin Laden story, but both cases show how our view of these momentous times are being manipulated with the complicity of a lazy and unprofessional media.


  1. Glad I'm not the only one concerned by the way this has been reported. Even Channel 4 News told the story of the operation as if it was fact, before thankfully then using 'according to' when referring to subsequent pieces of information.

    I'm not sure whether this is because of credulity or a fear of being seen as a conspiracy theorist - ironically, some news organisations' (and photo agencies') desire for verification led them to hastily publish the fake 'dead Osama' image that so many have, conversely, taken as 'evidence' that Osama has not been killed. If they had a higher threshold of attribution, this would have been avoided.

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